Friday, March 21 is National French Bread Day. Bakeries in the Big Easy have perfected the po-boy loaf, but New Orleans French bread differs significantly from the traditional French baguette. Dominique Rizzo, owner and baker at La Boulangerie (4600 Magazine St., 504-269-3777), spoke with Gambit about the joys of traditional French baking.
How did you find yourself opening a French bakery in New Orleans?
Rizzo: I'm from Versailles, outside Paris. I was a chef for 15 years before I was a baker and a pastry chef. I came to New Orleans to open a restaurant, and then I found out there wasn't any real French bread in the city. So I went back to France and did a six-month formation — training to make bread — and I came back to open a bakery with my boy (Sebastian Rizzo). We opened La Boulangerie in 2000.
What are the differences between traditional French bread and New Orleans-style French loaves?
R: French bread has to have a nice crust and be crispy, airy inside — with bubbles inside the bread. It only has a one-day life. People in France will go to the bakery and buy a baguette every day, sometimes twice a day, for lunch and dinner. They want the crispy crust and this special texture.
I read a story about the po-boy — that when the sandwich was invented they actually used a more traditional French baguette, but people said that the bread caused too much waste, because of the round edges of the baguette. They didn't like the crispy crust — in France we love that. So they made this big, long rectangle kind of bread that they could use to put more things inside. Americans like a big meal; they want more stuff, more food and less delicate. But a po-boy is good, I like it. It was a good idea.
In France, bakers realized baguettes are a good business, because with only a one-day life, people have to come in and buy it every day. When I was a kid, we had a baguette, and if we had any left over we'd use it for pain perdu or bread pudding. My dad and my mom didn't want leftover bread the next day. We'd give it to the dog. I liked to go to the bakery because it was a way to get some extra pocket money — I'd pay for the bread and keep the change for candy, so I'd always fight with my brother about who got to go to the bakery. Most of the time, it was a 15-minute walk, so we'd buy two baguettes and come back with one. The second one was gone. So they'd say, "Go back!"
What's the secret behind an authentic baguette?
R: The way to make a French baguette like the way we do according to tradition in France, is that, from the mixing to the baking, it takes three to four hours. It's a long process. We mix the dough, let it sit for an hour, fold the dough, let it sit for an hour, fold the dough again, let it sit for an hour, then we shape it, relax the dough, then bake for 35 minutes. You also need to use good quality flour — we use King Arthur Flour, from the U.S. — good filtered water and not too much salt. We use 1.5 percent salt. Some bakeries use 2 percent to the amount of flour. With less salt, it rises better; if you use too much, the bread is going to be dense. We do this every day, and I'm here at three o'clock in the morning to start. You really have to love it to be a baker.